Amritsar - the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion
Amritsar, the capital city of the state of Punjab is the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion. The fascinating city of Amritsar is synonymous with the Haramandir Sahib or the Golden Temple, as it is popularly known the world over. Amritsar is located in the northwestern part of India, and is an important place of pilgrimage for the followers of Sikhism, a relatively modern religion born out of India. Amritsar by itself is a busy and bustling city with narrow dusty lanes, unruly traffic and a typically infectious energy but the Golden Temple stands majestic and tranquil, in stark contrast to the rest of the geography and squalor around it.
Translated into the English language, the word Amritsar means the ‘Pool of Nectar’. It is an analogy for the sacred lake of ‘Amrit’ (nectar) that encircles the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple reverently houses the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib in the centre of a three-tiered bejeweled hall with walls plated with intricately carved real Gold and silver. The grandeur of the main shrine is impossible to translate into words. Equally impossible is to recreate the magic of the moment when you soak in the tranquility and awesome aura of the Golden Temple.
In keeping with the Sikh religious philosophy of openness the temple has doors opening on all four sides. A soft delicious pudding called ‘Prashad’ is served after the customary kneeling down in front of the Granth Sahib. All visitors have to remove their shoes and cover their heads before entering the Gurudwara and smoking is strictly prohibited.
The Golden Temple also houses the highest seat of power in the Sikh religious hierarchy called the ‘Akal Takht’, which is presided over by a high priest called ‘Jathedar’ who may be considered equivalent in status to the Pope, in Sikhism. The Akal Takht was built by the Sikh Guru Hargobind in the 16th century, where the Guru Granth Sahib is brought in grand procession from the Harmandir Sahib each evening.
The Golden temple is a sight of rare grandeur especially during the late evenings, when the temple is lit up brilliantly. The golden reflection of the temple swimming lazily in the surrounding lake coupled with the soulful music of the Kirtan (religious songs sung inside the temple) is absolutely mesmerizing. For the Sikhs a bath in this lake called ‘Sarovar’ is considered a sacramental obligation since the water of the lake is considered to cleanse you of your sins. It is also customary to walk one full circle around the lake before leaving the Temple. The area around the lake is dotted with interesting tit bits of history surrounding the making of the shrine including the 450-year-old Jubi Tree, planted by Baba Buddha and said to be empowered to make barren wombs fertile.
It is said that the land for the shrine was donated by the Mughal emperor, Abkar to the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Dass in the late 16th century. The shrine was completed during the time of the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev and the Gurudwara got its popular name Golden Temple in 1830 when Punjab's celebrated king Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated 100 kg of gold for gold-plating the outer walls of the shrine.
The Sikh religion is based on the equality of all mankind and on the concept of service to the community. Therefore people of all races and religions are welcome to stay without charge in the residential quarters of the Golden Temple and also avail free community meals called ‘Guru ka Langar’ in the Gurudwara. The Langar involves sitting cross-legged on the floor in a row with all kinds of people irrespective of their social status, for a free meal comprising of dal (lentils), rice, chapattis and a glass of water. The food may not be great but the experience certainly is worth its while. The Golden temple is open 24 hours a day, and ‘Kirtan’ is sung from the morning till late evening.
Numerous small shops selling religious paraphernalia like Kirpans and handicrafts surround the temple. There is of course some more to the city than just the Golden Temple and a rickshaw from outside the temple will take you just anywhere you want to go. You can reach the Amritsar railway station from the Golden Temple on a rickshaw and the ride will not cost you any more than 20 rupees !
Like many other Indian cities with an ancient lineage, Amritsar is also divided into the new city & the old city. The central old part called the ‘Walled City’ is characterized by narrow zig zag streets which date back to the 17th century! The entire city is planned into small residential units called ‘Katras’ which were organised in this manner, in order to create an effective tactic for defending the city during attacks.
The Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) is the main road of Amritsar, which famously connects Delhi to Amritsar and further goes up to Lahore in Pakistan. The Mughal emperor Sher Shah Suri built this road and it spans the entire Northern half of the Indian subcontinent, connecting Peshawar in Pakistan to Sonargaon in Bangladesh.
The city of Amritsar is woven around the Sikh history and many well-known Sikh shrines are located in and around the city. Besides the religious shrines, the other important place of historical interest in the city is the ‘Jalian Walah Bagh’ next to the Golden Temple. This is a small, enclosed park with a bloody history of its own. In 1919 this park was the setting for one of the worst of its kind atrocities of the British rule on India.
Another worthy sight is the Ram Bagh, which is a beautifully landscaped garden named after the Sikh Guru Ram Das. The garden houses the summer palace of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh who is called the Lion of Punjab because of his valor and bravado. The palace has been converted into a museum containing weapons dating back to the Mughal times and portraits of the rulers Punjab besides other items related to the Sikh history.
A not-to-be-missed opportunity is a trip to the Wagah Border which is the International border between India and Pakistan. The Wagah border is located about 30 Kms west of Amritsar and the pomp, pageantry and grandeur of the beating retreat and the change of guard within an arm’s distance of the Indian and Pakistani soldiers makes for a most fascinating spectacle.
The border is ceremoniously closed every day at sunset and soldiers from each side try to show up the other in interesting ways. This showmanship has become a huge attraction and a large audience collects at the site every evening on both sides of the border to watch this daily ceremony of the soldiers and the lowering of the flags at sunset.
Amritsar also has a famous Hindu temple called Durgiana Mandir dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The temple belongs to the 16th century and though the architectural style and ambience reflects the influence of the Golden temple, it is still a popular tourist landmark of the city.
The city is known as much for its fabulous cuisine as for its spiritual offerings. Every nook and corner of the city is dotted with eateries churning mouth watering ‘channa bhatura’ or delectable jalebis, Amritsari naans, tandoori chicken and that perfect platter of the famous Amritsari fish. A trip down the dusty by lanes and alleys of Amritsar is a rare discovery of culinary delights.
Amritsar is also the preferred educational destination in the state of Punjab. The Guru Nanak Dev University of Amritsar is a renowned educational institution. The city also has a Medical College and an Engineering college besides other well-known institutions like the Khalsa College. The Khalsa College is certainly worth a visit, just for its great architecture and the beauty of the campus. Amritsar also has a one of a kind home for the destitute and the lepers called ‘Pingalwara’.
The main spoken language of the City is ‘Punjabi’ though Hindi & English is also spoken and understood widely. The people of Amritsar are considered to be sharp and shrewd businessmen though they are also extremely warm and hospitable.
The weather in Amritsar can be rather extreme with very cold in the Winter (November - February) and furiously humid during the Summer (April - July). There is also a brief monsoon July to September and the only months with a moderate weather are post Monsoon, September to November.
The Government of India has recently allocated Rs 1000 crore for the development of the Amritsar City. There are also various world class Malls and shopping centers being constructed in the city by private real estate developers. In a few years, Amritsar will get a swanky new modern look. But till then, the main shopping area in the City is the Mall Road.
The Mall road was built in 1880 by the British after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It once had a most beautiful landscape with a large number of shady fruits-laden trees, which has now paved way for at least 6 Malls that are being constructed on the Mall Road. If you are interested in shopping for traditional ethnic items like embroidered leather shoes (Jootis) you could visit the Hall Gate or Mochi (Cobbler) Bazaar. Likewise, the Guru Bazaar in Amritsar is famous for traditional Indian Jewelry. Shastri Bazaar specializes in blankets & woolen garments and since Amritsar is famous for its good quality rice, dry fruits and blended teas, one must visit the Majith Mandi Market to get a whiff the inviting aroma of dry fruits and spices.
The Rickshaw is the most practical way to commute in the city. Though if it’s the first time you are sitting on the Rickshaw, its important to hold on properly to both sides, lest you fall off on a bumpy road. Cabs are available but since distances are short, and the traffic is dense, the best option is to hire a rickshaw.
There are several hotels in the city and the more prominent among these are the Ritz Hotel, Mohan International Hotel, Heritage Ranjeet Svaasa and the MK Plaza. There are many budget hotels and lodges located in the area surrounding the Golden temple and it is easy to find a travel agent near the railway station who will guide visitors according to their budget and requirements. The Grand Hotel near the Amritsar Railway Station is a great option for a budget traveler looking for decent accommodation.
If traveling in the summer months, you must carry light cotton clothes, mosquito repellent among your other things though the city is fairly modern and well equipped as far as medical services and infrastructure is concerned.
Amritsar is well connected to the rest of the Indian cities by rail and air. The International airport located on the outskirts of the city is called the Raja Sansi Airport, which is fast developing in to a major terminal for inbound and outbound International traffic due to the large number of Sikhs and Punjabi people living and traveling around the world.